Venezuela’s Guaido calls for more protests, and plans a risky return

Venezuela interim President Juan Guaidó called for national demonstrations Monday and Tuesday and says he will be returning to the country in coming hours as he continues his high-stakes effort to push Nicolás Maduro out of office.

Speaking from an undisclosed location late Sunday, Guaidó warned the regime not to detain him as he returns from a week-long trip through South America, saying it would amount to a coup and would be “one of the last mistakes” Maduro would make

He also called on his followers to take to the streets Monday starting at 11 a.m. local time (10 a.m. EST). Although Guaidó hasn’t said exactly when or how he will get back into his country, the demonstrations could provide cover for his risky return.

The 35-year-old politician left Venezuela on Feb. 22, crossing into Colombia overland and defying a court-ordered travel ban. Violating that ban might give authorities the legal cover to arrest him. He’s also likely to face charges for his role in organizing an attempt to drive cargo trucks into Venezuela that were carrying humanitarian aid. That convoy, which the Maduro administration said was tantamount to an invasion, was stopped last weekend on the border with Colombia and amid clashes that left hundreds injured.

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Maduro and the courts have allowed Guaidó to remain free even after he took the provocative step of declaring himself president on Jan. 23. Guaidó argued that it was his constitutional duty, as head of congress, to assume the presidency after last year’s contested presidential elections.

More than 60 nations now recognize Guaidó as the legitimate president and have warned Maduro against detaining him, as he’s done with other political rivals.

Guaidó has spent the last few days on a whirlwind trip through South America meeting the presidents of Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Ecuador. Before Sunday’s speech, he was last seen boarding an Ecuadorean military aircraft in Salinas, Ecuador, on after meeting with President Lenin Moreno.

On Sunday, as he sat next to his wife with the Venezuelan flag behind him, Guaidó said his fledgling administration had gained unprecedented recognition and that Venezuela’s struggle had the “support of the world.”

While Guaidó is popular in the country and has powerful allies abroad, including Washington, Maduro still controls government institutions and, critically, the military high command.

Even so, Guaidó says some 700 security officers have abandoned Maduro in the last week – many of them fleeing into Colombia – and he called on other members of the military to follower their lead.

Maduro has accused his rival of pushing the country into a civil war and inviting foreign forces – particularly the United States and Washington – to intervene. In Maduro’s telling only he and the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela can guarantee the peace.

Gauidó called that a “false dilemma.”

“We all want peace today but it doesn’t exist,” he said. “Our dilemma in Venezuela today is between a dictatorship and a democracy.”

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Guaidó’s return could open a new and chaotic chapter in Venezuela’s political struggle.

Many will be watching this week’s demonstrations for signs that enthusiasm is waning as the political crisis grinds into its second month. The calls for demonstrations also come in the middle of carnival celebrations in Venezuela — potentially sapping turnout.

In recent days, Colombia has said that Guaidó and his family are facing “credible threats” to their lives in Venezuela.

“Colombia rejects any acts of the Nicolás Maduro regime against the liberty, security or personal safety of the interim President of Venezuela or his family,” Colombia’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement. “And we will hold [the regime] responsible for any violent action or threat against them.”

Maduro insists that last year’s election gives him the right to rule through 2025 and that Guaidó is a Washington puppet and part of broader coup plot.

Jim Wyss covers Latin America for the Miami Herald and was part of the team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for its work on the “Panama Papers.” He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2005.